• The Good: Found families, community, and martial arts
  • The Bad: Emotionally distant
  • The Literary: An homage to traditional oral storytelling

Traveling cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills monastery in China, wanders to the riverlands to collect tales. They are specifically interested in the disappearing martial arts and the seeming near-immortals who practice them. Chih falls in with a pair of young women and an older couple along the way, becoming more involved with the history of the riverlands than expected. Delightfully, Chih never leaves without Almost Brilliant, his neixin bird, who has eidetic memory and serves as a living story repository.

This is the third installment in this cute little series that follows Chih and their adventures. Luckily, each novella is standalone, and they can be read in any order. I love that these are stories within stories, but they are also about the experience of stories, whether hearing them differently based on individual listener, or getting something new from them decades later, or living the story itself. This installment also features themes of how stories are collected history and preserve community.

Unfortunately, because this is a collection of interconnected stories, I find it quite unstructured. Between the primary, secondary, and even tertiary narratives, the reader feels unmoored. Put another way, this feels rambling. The characters are also emotionally distant and have voices quite similar to one another.

On the one hand, I am enjoying this wave of cozy scifi and fantasy, which can be about self-acceptance and new opportunities, or about finding community and coming home. But all of these stories tend to be a small group of people wandering around with no real antagonists or struggles or room to grow, so they’re often bland. I still love the meta discussion of stories in this series, but I’m also ready for some conflict.

Recommended for fans of quiet fantasy and stories within stories.